Holocaust survivor Henri Fernebock was my mother’s pen pal from 1946 until 1948, when he went to Israel from Paris. My mother, Nancy Klein, was a teenager in New York at the time.
On October 10, 1948, Henri and four other soldiers in the Beit Choron Battalion were killed in Israel’s War of Independence. Henri was just 20 years old when he died.
A letter from my mother was found on Henri’s body. The government informed her of his death, and that was the last she heard of him.
Seventy-three years later, in October 2021, I wrote in Israel21c.org about visiting Henri’s grave at Israel’s national military cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.
One picture in that Israel21C.org story shows a note on the grave placed by Doron Leitner, a volunteer from the organization Latet Panim L’Noflim (Giving a Face to the Fallen). The note asks for information about Henri. There were only bare details of his life and no photograph of him in the cemetery’s Hall of Remembrance.
“Perhaps someone can provide more facts, even a picture, to help us – and the country he died defending — understand exactly who this hero was,” I wrote.
Never underestimate the power of the press.
Due to diligent detective work prompted by the Israel21c.org article, Henri is no longer a faceless casualty.
Here’s what happened.
A family friend of ours in Jerusalem posted the Israel21c story on Facebook. Her step-nephew in Brooklyn saw it and decided to do some genealogical digging, using alternative spellings of Henri’s surname.
Within a short time, he sent Latet Panim L’Noflim information on Henri’s first cousin Daniel Gersztenkorn of Paris, and about another cousin, French émigré Emmanuel Lesgold of Jerusalem.
Neither cousin knew more than bits and pieces of Henri’s story, but Mr. Lesgold gave Latet Panim L’Noflim the family tree he’d created on Geni.
Volunteer Tamar Weinblum tirelessly combed various archives and genealogy sites. She met with Mr. Gersztenkorn in Paris, who directed her to Henri’s niece, also in France.
Ms. Weinblum called me in May to tell me that she had uncovered many previously unknown facts and even had a photograph of Henri. When I told her that my mother was coming from her home in Yonkers for a family celebration this summer, Ms. Weinblum decided to organize a ceremony at Mount Herzl.
And so, on July 4, volunteers from Latet Panim L’Noflim watched as my mother, now 92, lit a memorial candle with Mr. Lesgold and saw a picture of Henri for the first time. She was interviewed live by Ynet.
Mr. Lesgold commented that all the pieces of the puzzle coming together in Jerusalem from various countries highlights the unity of the far-flung Jewish people. “Outside of this cemetery we are all apart, but we saw today that we are all connected, and we must never forget it, ever,” he said.
Dorit Perry and her friend Uri Sagi started Latet Panim L’Noflim about 10 years ago. Their goal was to fill in missing details for 1,000 fallen soldiers buried at Mount Herzl. Honoring the Israeli tradition of leaving no soldier behind, so far the group’s 25 multilingual volunteers have succeeded in gathering dossiers on 270 of them.
Ms. Perry got in touch with me when the details of Henri’s story started surfacing, after being locked up inside his extended family’s wartime trauma.
“Your article opened everything!” she told me with obvious joy.
“It is not easy work to find the life story of people born long ago in places such as Yemen and Syria, Czechoslovakia and Latvia,” she said at the July 4 ceremony. “It’s very complicated.”
Ms. Perry emphasized that what matters most to her organization is “to put a face on the soldier, not just to learn the biographical details. And that’s the hardest part of our work: to find family members who may have a picture in their possession.”
Ms. Weinblum succeeded in this mission. She got a picture from Henri’s niece in France showing the family at the 1946 wedding of Henri’s maternal uncle, Mr. Lesgold’s grandfather.
Ms. Weinblum also discovered Henri’s Hebrew name – Avraham Chuna – given to him after his birth in Warsaw on August 15, 1928. That name will now be added to his tombstone and his surname will be corrected from Fernubick to Fernebock.
Around 1930, the Fernebocks moved to France, and Avraham Chuna became Henri.
His father was murdered at Auschwitz in 1942. Henri, his mother, and two younger siblings survived the war in hiding but became separated because of their dire circumstances. Despite the photo from the wedding, the family never fully recovered from this rift.
Ms. Weinblum didn’t find Henri’s name in any ship manifest from 1948. She suspects he emigrated under a false name, because he still was a minor under French law. She still continues to search for more information about his journey to Israel.
Ms. Weinblum told Henri’s story at the gravesite on July 4. She was surrounded by a delegation of young soldiers. One of them recited psalms and sang the traditional memorial elegy. My husband, Steve, recited Kaddish– the first time it was ever recited at Henri’s grave, as far as Mr. Lesgold knows, because to say it requires a minyan — a quorum of 10.
We proceeded to the Hall of Remembrance, where Mr. Lesgold and my mother lit a virtual candle for Henri and touched his memorial brick.
My mother said that the experience at Mount Herzl was nothing short of surreal.
She told Ms. Perry that when she was informed of Henri’s death, she felt terrible. She realized that she couldn’t fill in any blanks about his life because she had not kept the letters she and Henri exchanged over the course of two years.
“I was 16 years old, and I did not realize how important this was,” she said. “I wish so much that I still had those letters.”
However, Ms. Lesgold told my mother, “This family, this teenager, was in a desperate state after the war. Maybe your letters did more [good] than you thought at the time.”
That was a very comforting perspective.
“I think because Henri suffered so much during the war and after, he was looking to have a normal conversation with young people,” Ms. Weinblum added.
“Yes,” Ms. Perry told my mother. “Your letters were a connection to the world for him. To somebody who cared.”
Learn more about Latet Panim L’Noflim by going to latetpanim.org.il/en/. To find out more details about Henri Fernebock on that site, click on “Names of the Fallen” at the top of the homepage.
This story first appeared on Israel21.org
Abigail Klein Leichman and her husband moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim in 2007, after 20 years in Teaneck. She is a correspondent for the Jewish Standard.